Curfews as further erosion of a healthy public life

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IMG_2360.JPGI remember seeing author and activist Parker J. Palmer speak in Richmond in the late 90s, about the needed renewal of America's public life. He spoke of a time and a culture where U.S. citizens were much more likely to engage each other fully and authentically in the public sphere - parks, playgrounds, town meetings, neighborhood events, community gatherings. And it wasn't just nostalgia - he talked about a strong public life as a therapy for some of the world's ills, by connecting us with viewpoints, resources, and people beyond what we know in our more insulated lives at home. As Ronald Rolheiser put it, "To participate healthily in other people’s lives takes us beyond our own obsessions. It also steadies us. Most public life has a certain rhythm and regularity to it that helps calm the chaotic whirl of our private lives." Indeed.

It's too bad, then, that we often seem to be trending toward the further diluting and replacing of a strong public life, especially for our younger community members. In Richmond, the Common Council recently decided to enact a new curfew that restricts people under the age of 18 from being out past a certain time of the evening, and threatens to fine the parents of those people progressively higher for each offense.

As with most laws that say "if you're under a certain age, the government requires that you do or do not ____", I think it's yet another unnecessary and misguided transfer of a community's power and responsibility to decide how it wants to live away from the community members themselves (especially parents and children) and to the government and accompanying police state. (Do we still honestly believe that the time elapsed since birth is such a precise measure of maturity, self-discipline, ethics or responsibility?) But in this case, it's one of those particularly draconian measures that says "you, human, must stay in this particular physical space from this time of day to that time of day." Do we really want that kind of imperative coming from lawmakers who don't live with us, who don't know what our private lives entail?

I know that one argument for this kind of curfew is that it helps keep order in the city, reducing the amount of policing that has to be done. The implication here is that (A) people under the age of 18 are the predominant cause of disorder, and (B) a form of order that involves restricting our public lives by threat of physical force and economic hardship is a desirable one. I would suggest that neither A nor B are generally true, and that by trying to relieve the burden of policing our streets during certain hours, we pursue outcomes that are far inferior to creating a community where the streets are a positive part of a healthy public life.

It's putting a band-aid on symptoms and avoiding the deeper conversations we could have about why we don't think we can live together well without a curfew. It's an example of a world run by old minds that think "how can I keep these bad things from happening?" instead of new minds that think "how can we best create the world we want to live in?" And it makes you start to think about what other programs are in place that artificially hold us back or keep us confined, when there are much more important things we should be spending our time and energy on.

4 thoughts on “Curfews as further erosion of a healthy public life

  1. Yeah, any policy is a balance of many interests, including how specific it can be and how easy it is to implement. It's hard to interview every 19-year-old that comes into a bar to see if he or she can drink responsibly, for example. Perfect policies don't exist, so a heuristic like an age limit can often be optimal.

    I agree that this policy is almost certainly too broad. It's hard to come up with specific alternatives, though.

  2. I suppose the policy is, in part, a reaction to the growing drug traffic in this community, and perhaps -- perhaps -- a wish to protect "our" children from that threat, or perhaps, temptation.

    I heard a local (and respected) physician say, just yesterday: our greatest growth in production, manufacturing, and employment in this community can be found in the buying and selling of illegal drugs. We have moved from George Orwell's "cheap palliatives" (beer, cigarettes, sugar, etc.) to much more expensive ones.

    I can't help but think that our community -- like many others -- wants to see a quick fix to problems with deep roots. Like applying Roundup to poison ivy. Still, as any gardener knows, Roundup is no quick fix.

    Neither is a curfew.

  3. I recently became aware that the original reason for most of our drug laws was as a way to punish immigrants. Laws against marijuana were used in the southwest to fix a perceived problem of Mexicans disrupting city life. It was a spurious claim, but the laws offered a way to legitimate the racist actions already underway.

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